Snowstorms Take A Toll In Afghan Refugee Camps

Aw Muhammad, a resident of a refugee camp in western Kabul, pulls back a shade as one of his six surviving children looks out on the snow. Afghanistan is suffering one of its harshest winters in many years. i i

hide captionAw Muhammad, a resident of a refugee camp in western Kabul, pulls back a shade as one of his six surviving children looks out on the snow. Afghanistan is suffering one of its harshest winters in many years.

Quil Lawrence/NPR
Aw Muhammad, a resident of a refugee camp in western Kabul, pulls back a shade as one of his six surviving children looks out on the snow. Afghanistan is suffering one of its harshest winters in many years.

Aw Muhammad, a resident of a refugee camp in western Kabul, pulls back a shade as one of his six surviving children looks out on the snow. Afghanistan is suffering one of its harshest winters in many years.

Quil Lawrence/NPR

Kabul's fourth snowstorm in the past month brought children out to play across the city, including those in the Charahi Qambar refugee camp in the western part of the capital.

Many of the children in the camp don't remember any other life outside of this mud-brick shantytown. Most of their parents fled the southern province of Helmand when the war heated up there four years ago.

Opening the plastic sheet that serves as a door to her one-room home, Ram Bibi's hands shake from arthritis and the cold. She left Helmand four years ago after a bombardment that killed her husband. Now her home is a room about 10 by 20 feet wide, where she says 13 people sleep, most of them children.

"This is the worst winter we've had," she says, noting that the families in the area came from the warmer areas in southern Afghanistan. "The kids don't realize that playing in the snow and getting wet can leave them with a deadly chill as night falls."

Still Dependent On Aid

Despite a decade of substantial Western aid, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest countries, and this winter is testing the government's ability to help its citizens in need. The cold has claimed the lives of at least two dozen children so far.

At another house in the Charahi Qambar refugee camp, Aw Muhammad pulls back the curtain on an even smaller room where he, his wife and his children sleep. There were nine in the family, he says, until the last storm hit. His daughter Naghma was just 2 years old — and was beautiful and healthy until this winter.

"She got really, really sick when the ground was really cold," he says. "She died at night while she was sleeping, and [when] we woke in the morning, she was dead."

Muhammad points to snow that is melting off his makeshift roof. The water soaks the floor and makes it impossible to feel warm at night, even next to the family's small, smoky wood stove.

"This is the coldest winter in many years, some would say decades," says Ken Yamashita, who directs the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan. He says that media reports about the deaths in the camp have inspired a flood of donations.

A Slow Government Response

The Afghan government, however, was slow to react to the problems in the camps. Dayem Kaakar, director of Afghanistan's National Disaster Management Authority, says the government still isn't ready to handle a crisis on its own, and probably won't be for years to come.

There is also a political dimension to the camps. The government and international organizations have resisted setting up permanent shelters or aid distribution for fear of making the camps more permanent. Even as the aid started to flow, some leaders in the camp were angry.

"To hell with President Karzai," said Taj Muhhammad Khan, an elected leader of the Charahi Qambar camp. "They don't even treat us like we're from Afghanistan. The government just wants us to disappear."

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